Iraq's Kurds uneasy over transfer of sovereignty

UN resolution pits victims of Saddam Hussein's regime against each other

The world may have celebrated the return of Iraqi sovereignty symbolised by the passing of a new UN resolution, but Kurds in the country are feeling unease rather than joy.

The resolution has touched off the long expected crisis which pits the two main victims of Saddam Hussein's regime, the Kurds and the Shi'ites, against each other. In the north, Iraq's estimated five million Kurds, staunchly pro-American, refuse to countenance any reduction in the autonomy they have built up since 1991.

In the south, the Shi'ites, who make up 60 per cent of the population, sense at last the political advantage in their superior numbers.

As long as the coalition forces remained in full control in Iraq, the Kurds had little to fear from fellow citizens in the south and centre.

But with the slow return of sovereignty to Baghdad, and the increasing involvement of the wider international community, they have become painfully aware of the fragility of their position, and their lack of loyal allies.

The wording of the resolution sponsored by the United States and Britain so upset Kurdish leaders that they are threatening to secede from the rest of Iraq if their de facto veto powers over the new government are lost.

Prime Minister Iyad Alawi was forced to issue a statement promising that his government would stand by a Temporary Administrative Law (TAL) agreed on in March after it was not referred to in the resolution.

His intervention came in response to a letter sent by Kurdish leaders to US President George W. Bush, warning that if 'the TAL is abrogated, the Kurdistan Regional Government will have no choice but to refrain from participating in the central government and its institutions, not to take part in the national elections, and to bar representatives of the central government from Kurdistan'.

Kurd concern turned to anger when Washington and London - in large part due to pressure from influential Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - omitted any reference to the TAL in the resolution given to the Security Council.

The TAL's most crucial provision from the Kurdish perspective was a provision enabling two-thirds of voters in three of the country's 18 provinces to block the permanent charter. Kurds have an overwhelming majority in three provinces, in essence giving them veto powers.

'That administrative law contained all sorts of good things - provisions for women's rights, for the creation of a functioning civil society - all of them issues we have been fighting for since 1991,' said Runak Faraj, editor of a women's fortnightly newspaper in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniyah.

'I'm afraid now that we're going down the road opened by Khomeini in Iran.'

As far as the Kurds are concerned, the law is still valid.

'Is a British law annulled every time a new government comes to power,' asks Kubat Talabani, Washington representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

'No, and there is absolutely no reason at all why that should happen in Iraq.'

Despite the fact their representatives accepted the TAL back in March, it proved on reflection too much for Shi'ite leaders.

Iraqi finance minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, a leader of one of Iraq's largest Shi'ite parties, said that the country's Shi'ite leadership was determined to strip the Kurds of their potential to stall future legislation even if that meant driving them away.